By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
COLORADO SPRINGS — In El Paso County GOP politics, there’s a golden rule: Never support a tax increase. To do otherwise is tempting the fate of God — and repentance rarely helps a Republican in the aftermath.
The catalyst for testing God in GOP territory is a proposed penny tax increase — ballot position 1A — to fund county and city governments. How susceptible are Republican proponents to being struck by lightning? Few may ever again sling that well-worn phrase: Democrats have never seen a tax they didn’t love.
The majority of Democratic Party candidates running for county and legislative races oppose the tax increase. The same can’t be said of Republicans. That’s the gospel!
Republican tax proponents — some are public-forum martyrs for the tax — include Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera, Vice Mayor Larry Small and all the council members except Daryl Glen; El Paso County Commissioners Sallie Clark, Dennis Hisey and Wayne Williams, a former county GOP chair; El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa; state Rep. Marsha Looper of House District 19, and Kit Roupe, candidate for House District 17.
“Like you, I know that it is not a great time to ask our citizens for a tax increase. But it is my responsibility and my duty to tell you that we have a public health and safety crisis,” said Maketa at a public meeting, reciting nearly verbatim from his quotation on a “Yes on 1A” brochure.
Republicans who oppose the tax — in obedience to God’s will and the GOP gospel according to Ronald Reagan — include Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany, state Sen. Dave Schultheis, state Rep. Kent Lambert and El Paso County Commissioners Amy Lathen and Jim Bensberg. Before the tax hike hit the ballot, Bensberg had proposed a half-cent tax increase, but that idea was rejected.
Lathen said she’s more inclined to cut the county budget than ask taxpayers to pony up. The penny hike would mean taxpayers, already strapped by higher prices and cuts in retirement funds, would pay 8.4 percent in Colorado Springs and more in Manitou Springs.
Other local Republican legislators and a couple of Democratic candidates have either flown under the radar or ducked the question at forums or PAC endorsement interviews. It is, after all, a controversy at the local — rather than the state or national — level.
Citizens for Effective Government (CEG), a pro-tax campaign headed by Stephannie Finley of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, recently sent a mailer stating that voters must support the tax increase or face dire consequences. The latter was described in flaming red letters over a collage of newspaper headlines such as, “Cop Killer gets 96” and “TAINTED TOMATOES SICKEN AREA WOMAN.”
It warns that without a tax increase, “services are being cut drastically, crime will continue to rise, police and sheriff patrols will be cut, we will continue to see longer emergency response times … public health officers are unable to inspect public pools and restaurants, drug and alcohol abuse enforcement will be eliminated.”
According to CEG, the sales tax hike will generate $75 million annually — an amount necessary to meet the growing county budget and construction projects as well as percentages doled out to cities in the county.
At a recent forum, Hisey presented figures compiled by the county Budget and Economic Development Administration that reported the county’s budget at $234.8 million in 2008. That figure conflicted with the information posted by the same department on the county Web site. There, the 2008 budget was $233.4 million minus a $9.1 million reduction (shortfall), which adds up to a total of $224.3 million.
Yet, the county plans to propel the current budget to more than $308.5 million in 2009 — a roughly 27 percent increase that hinges on voters passing the tax increase.
Opponents of the tax increase, Citizens for Cost Effective Government (CCEG), question the proposed budget, which contains millions of dollars for construction that could be delayed, then phased in over future years in a healthier economy.
“This is the worst possible time for a tax increase,” said Danny Cole of CCEG. “Wages in the Colorado Springs area have declined 2.5 percent, unemployment is up, and foreclosures are at an all-time high. We shouldn’t put more strain on county taxpayers to make the county’s budget grow even faster. Government should not be our fastest growing industry.”
CCEG objects to the fact that taxpayers are being asked to pay to construct a $75.5 million jail and a $26 million sheriff’s administration building and to cough up $12.6 million for two neighborhood substations. In addition, the tax would provide $15.9 million in “unfunded mandates” for the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, reportedly to construct additional courtrooms and pay for new assistants to judges.
Opponents question the staggering costs for projects that could be postponed, and balk at the proponents’ public relations campaign, in which they say failure would result in cuts to a large number of services. They cite the expensive jail expansion and construction of the $46 million Terry Harris Justice Center in 2005.
“The courthouse is being built to grow with the county. The two top floors of the five-story tower will be shells when it opens next year, and courtrooms will be built as they are needed in the next 15 years,” Harris told the Colorado Springs Gazette in June 2005.
“Each floor will cost $1 million to finish,” Harris said.
“It’s not cheap,” Harris said, but, “at least we won’t have to build a new building,” the newspaper reported when that campaign was under way.
In 2005, the county also spent more than $38 million to expand the Criminal Justice Center in southeast Colorado Springs to create a regional facility to house prisoners. The city jail was demolished to expand the courthouse.
County commissioners approved spending $86 million to expand the regional jail and construct a larger courthouse after voters rejected a proposal to increase tax rates and government debt to expand the jail in 2002.
Ironically, the county is promoting the current tax increase and expenditures based on crime statistics compiled since 2006 — the same year the jail and courthouse projects were completed.
According to those statistics, home invasions increased 52 percent, robberies 43 percent, assaults 38 percent, domestic violence 37 percent, sex crimes 17 percent, and restraining order violations were “up 33 percent — often times resulting in death.”
El Paso County government also printed a flyer about 1A that states the sheriff’s office will lose $1 million in the 2009 budget if voters reject the tax increase — but excludes the cost of the construction projects. If the tax fails, the brochure warns of “a 10 percent reduction of deputies for the Law Enforcement/Patrol. Six to 12 positions in the jail will be cut…”
During a recent forum, Maketa said the 2009 budget included the cost of housing illegal immigrants, but that the new expense would not be offset by reimbursements from the federal government. According to Maketa’s monthly figures, which are based on the number of prisoners, the repayment is an estimated $1.4 million for 2008 — an amount that exceeds the projected operations loss.
Proponents think most voters will support the penny tax increase, which would exempt grocery food, drug, gas and utilities expenditures.
“I support it because of the unfunded federal mandates that particularly impact our judicial system,” said Roupe. “The county and cities have cut everything possible, and need additional funding.”
“I expect governments on all levels to balance their budgets, just like every citizen. We all have to make cuts — and it’s difficult,” said Wendy Langford, a member of former Congressman Ken Kramer’s staff. “Because I believe in fiscal responsibility, I’m voting against the tax increase.”
Will the heavens open for the tax increase? Will pro-tax Republicans ever be saved?